book review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez
Overview: Olga has moved from her Brooklyn neighborhood surrounded by her large Puerto Rican family to an Ivy League college and then back to her beloved neighborhood where she launched a wedding planning business for New York City's wealthiest future brides and grooms. Olga is at the top of her game, but she's still finding holes of yearning in her life. After losing her father to AIDs, her grandmother passing, and her mom disappearing, Olga has many wounds to heal as she progresses in her adult life. Her brother, Prieto harbors secrets of his own as he progresses through New York politics, and the siblings spend the summer of 2017 fitting together the pieces of who they are and who they want to be once again. Overall: 4.5
Characters: 5 Every character in this book is so nuanced and lovely. There's Olga who is courageous and fearless and a bit conniving as well as fiercely protective of her large extended family. She's the heartbeat of the book as she works to overcome her abandonment issues and accept love into her life as she realizes that her career is no longer solely fulfilling. She connects with a neighbor named Matteo, and their love story becomes the sweet thread of the book that gives reprieves to darker or chaotic moments. We get to learn about Matteo as Olga does, reliving into his past, his world, and his own insecurities as well as come to know his enduring patience. We also see Olga's clients and business associates in a surprisingly nuanced light for the relatively small roles they play in the book. This is warranted, though, with how snarled each character and storyline is with the others.
Then there's Prieto who is a congressman at the present moment and has been in politics his entire adult life. His parents were part of fringe political parties growing up, and they always fought, especially, for the betterment of Puerto Rico. Inspired by their quest, Prieto has decided to take the path of advocating through government positions, but his noble heart is challenged when rich real estate developers blackmail him with what he believes to be his most well-hidden secret. It's hard to say too much about Prieto's journey without giving away some of the stories twists, but he goes on a full journey of self acceptance and learning how to choose himself when he needs to. You can't live life wholly in service of pleasing others. Both he and Olga are tasked with learning how to cope with a mother who never fully understood what it meant to be a parent.
Then there's the family which gets built out in clear detail. There's Mabel, Olga's cousin, who she used to be extremely close with until adulthood. She's getting married, and Olga is determined to still support her. There's aunts and uncles and ex-wives that are still as much a part of the family as anyone else. Through flashbacks, we get to know Olga's grandmother who mostly raised her after her mom left and Tia Lola who also lended a significant hand. We come to know her Aunt and parent's backstories piece by piece illuminating holes in the stories and how their realities were shaped. There isn't a character in the book that we don't see from multiple perspectives and in good and bad lights. While there are clear villains, the book is a keen reminder that so much of the hero-villain paradigm is determined by which window you want to peer through.
Plot: 4 This book is a rollercoaster. Pay attention to seemingly insignificant details because they all come back around in big and small ways that will surprise and delight. It's shocking how well weaved the plot is, and there really aren't loose ends or inconsequential moments. *Small spoiler in next sentence about a subplot* While I found the thread about Olga becoming entangled with the Russian mob unnecessary, in general, even as the plot escalated, took major swerves, and became much more complex, each scene added something emotionally or the raising the stakes. It's always magical to me to find such tightly woven contemporary fiction where everything loops together by the end to form such a decisive, clear picture. The book has much more twisty action than I expected, and it does end up having some nail-biting stakes that I didn't see coming. While the plot goes in countless directions, the book is ultimately such a good read because they all are orchestrated in such a clear, controlled way that nothing feels forgotten or tacked on.
Writing: 5 I really loved Gonzalez's voice. She often uses extremely long paragraphs, and for the first time possibly ever, I was so enthralled in the sentences, I didn't mind. Her long sentences pack in so much detail, but they also have an easy flow to them, and they're so interesting that the construction doesn't become a focus point. The writing is strong but in a way that allows the words themselves to fall to the background in favor of letting the full scale movie play out in front of your eyes. Every detail to build out Olga's world is handed over without any clunkiness, which is extremely impressive.
I also loved that while this was clearly Olga's book, the point of view shifted at times to let us live with Prieto or the conniving business man or to read Olga's mom's letters. We experience each scene through whoever is best equipped to tell it, and by having everyone be fair game to be a point of view character, Gonzalez perfectly wields omniscient tension for the reader where we're sometimes invited to stay a few steps ahead in piecing together everyone's information. It's a masterfully constructed story that left me extremely impressed.